Ex-Prime Minister scrutinised for alleged $10 million consulting payment

25 July 2018 Consultancy.uk 4 min. read

A consulting firm run by former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has come under scrutiny for a multimillion payment it received for its work with the Saudi Arabian Government. The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change describes itself as “not for profit”, but according to reports in the British press, it received more than $10 million at the start of 2018 for its work in the Middle East.

According to figures initially reported by the Sunday Telegraph, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change brokered a deal with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the effective ruler of Saudi Arabia, earlier this year to help with his regime’s programme of modernisation for the kingdom. It is a long-term project which a number of consulting firms have already benefitted from, with the consulting industry in the country as a whole looking to book double digit growth in the current financial year.

However, while many firms may be enjoying a bullish period in the consulting market’s growth, the apparent $10 million payment received by Tony Blair’s consultancy in January could be seen by many as substantially more problematic, not least because it is a self-styled "not for profit". The fee – which rose to nearly $12 million following additional payments by Media Investment, a subsidiary of the Saudi Research and Marketing Group – was reportedly received for the Tony Blair Institute’s work in the Middle East. This is something which the institute itself denies, and the former Prime Minister’s group insists that Tony Blair did not receive any payment from Riyadh, while profits are not generated from the group’s consulting work. Instead it says its mission is to promote stability and reform in the Middle East – with staff based in the UAE, a key ally of Saudi Arabia.

Ex-Prime Minister scrutinised for alleged $10 million consulting payment

Blair formerly closed an outright consulting firm in 2016, following criticism that Tony Blair Associates’ work “to provide, in partnership with others, strategic advice on a commercial and pro bono basis, on political and economic trends and governmental reform" would lead to potential conflicts of interest between his controversial diplomatic role as a Middle East peace envoy and his work as a consultant. As Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007, Tony Blair presided over a period of relative economic success, although his time in power was blighted by the Iraq War, of which Blair was chief architect in terms of British involvement.

The Saudi Government is currently working to push through a number of controversial reforms, and while these include economic and social reforms, such as allowing women to drive, and opening up public cinemas, the reforms supposedly aimed at “modernising” the notoriously conservative nation – while weaning it off its petroleum dependence – have been executed while the Crown Prince has also rounded up potential opponents and activists, including women's rights campaigners. With this in mind, along with claims among the British press that the ex-Labour leader was advising the reporters of an article which the institute had published, brimming with glowing praise for Mohammed bin Salman during his visit to the UK earlier in 2018.

One passage read, "As part of his broad, sweeping and ambitious plans to revolutionise Saudi Arabia, economically, socially and religiously, the crown prince has demonstrated a level of conviction, clarity and coherence in identifying and understanding the nature of Islamist extremism that Western policymakers should seek to learn from,” before the piece suggested, "Britain should learn from Saudi Arabia and how it has demonstrated a clear commitment to tackling the politicisation of Islam to inform policymaking."

Critics of the Saudi regime insist the reforms are cosmetic, and are merely aimed at boosting the PR of the kingdom following growing criticism regarding the regime's links with hard-line Wahhabi clerics, human rights abuses and an increasingly bloody war in Yemen. Meanwhile, critics similarly suggest the connection of the Tony Blair name to the project adds it legitimacy in the eyes of the West, making it a controversy whether or not the former heavyweight politician’s institute profited from it directly or not.